Sammy Hagar: Fearlessly Human

This interview first appeared as a cover Story for Goldmine Magazine in 2013. The interview was conducted by Classic Rock Revisited’s Jeb Wright. For more great interviews like this one be sure to subscribe to Goldmine Magazine!

By Jeb Wright

Sammy Hagar isn’t much of a rock star these days.  In fact, he has turned his back on the whole ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ scene, of which he lived to the hilt throughout the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. 

For many decades The Red Rocker, as he is known, was a true rock star in every sense of the word, fronting the bands Montrose and Van Halen, as well as enjoying a successful solo career.  Fast cars, faster woman and plenty of wild life kept Sammy on MTV and in the headlines of every music magazine on the planet.

Life after Van Halen, however, changed the man.  He no longer needed the glitz, glamour and instant satisfaction that being in the spotlight brings.  Instead of being center stage at all times he concentrated on making the music he wanted to make and on pursuing other business efforts and building relationships with family and friends.  He succeeded in every aspect of his life. 

His new lifestyle can best be described as a rock and roll version of Jimmy Buffet.  Instead of Parrot Heads, his fans are Red Heads (this writer is a fan as well, but as I told Sammy, I am neither; I am a bald head) and instead of the Florida Keys, Sammy’s base of operations is Cabo San Lucas Mexico…and San Francisco…and Las Vegas…and Maui. 

The man put over a hundred million bucks in his pocket by selling his company that made Cabo Wabo Tequila and he is not done yet,  as he has now come out with Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum.  He wears sandals and shorts, smiles a lot, is happily married and has traded hanging out with guys named Eddie and Alex for Country music superstars named Toby and Kenny. 

Hagar has put several of his friends to work on his latest release Sammy Hagar & Friends.  This is an album that sees a diverse range of superstar musicians and singers lending their talents to satisfy Hagar’s many musical whims.  The guest list includes Kid Rock, Ronnie Dunn, Nancy Wilson, Neal Schon, Chad Smith, Michael Anthony, Joe Satriani, Bill Church, Denny Carmassi and many more. And it all started with an idea from his late manager, a guy named Carter…just Carter.

In this interview, Goldmine caught up with Sammy to discuss his new album, his new lifestyle, his love of music and his fearlessness when it comes to trying new things. Sammy also gets honest about guilt he sometimes feels over becoming a multi-millionaire making what turned his father into a homeless alcoholic and eventually took his life. 

Jeb:  I wish your old manager, Carter, was here to see this new album.  He was a great guy and I really miss him now that he has passed away.

Sammy: This whole new CD started with Carter’s vision of me doing the four decades of rock tour, with a four decades of rock album.  He was a big vision guy and he pushed me a lot to do things that were really actually very smart in the long run. But when he first laid them on me, I said, “I don’t want to do an old record.”  But, in hindsight, he always had a big vision for me and I miss him a lot. 

Sammy:Jeb: Let’s talk about Sammy Hagar & Friends.  You have combined a guest star album, a remake album and a new Sammy Hagar album all into one. 

Sammy: Well, if there is one thing that I’ve learned to do in my old age, it’s how to roll it all together.  When I left Van Halen and I started the Wabos, and the tequila, and started going with the Cabo Wabo lifestyle…it was flip-flops, tank tops, around the clock, non-stop. 

I was not going to get dressed for the shows any longer and I was not going to be a rock star.  I just wanted to be this guy who goes out and plays.  When I started doing that, I started rolling it all together and it was easy to promote Cabo Wabo because I looked the part. 

Chickenfoot was the biggest departure I have done for a long time.  Chickenfoot is like my art band.  We go out and we just play Chickenfoot.  When I do things by myself, it is pretty much who I am, what I am, and the way I live. 

This is the music I play when I am in Cabo.  I might walk into Cabo on a Tuesday, in the middle of April, and nobody knows I am going to be there.  I go up onstage with some friends and this is what we do. 

I will play “Not Going Down” or “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” Well, that one has not been on the repertoire, because it is too lyrical, but we play “Born on the Bayou,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Whole Lotta Love” and other stuff.  We mix it up with my songs and then I always jam some stuff.  We just jam and we will just make up some lyrics and make up a song right on the spot.  That is the way I live and this record is an extension of that. 

Jeb: “Margaritaville” is an extension of that for sure. 

Sammy: Toby [Keith] and I have played “Margaritaville” probably as much as Jimmy [Buffet] in the last couple of years…it’s just the way it is. 

This is a pretty honest record.  I can’t see myself making a solo record any other way ever again. This is it, I’m calling up my buddies and this is what you get.  I am calling up some different people and asking them to come out and jam.  I am not saying, “Here is my new song that I want you to play on,” it’s more like “Come on out and see what happens.” 

Every song on this album is really fresh and it is so fresh that I still enjoy listening to this record.  Most of the time, when I make a new record, by the time I make a new record, I am over it and I am like “NEXT.”  This one happened so fast and so spontaneous that I love it. 

Jeb:  I love you and Toby together, but were you tempted to reach out to Buffett and have him on that song?

Sammy:  If somebody wanted to cover one of my old songs like “Red” or something, I probably wouldn’t want to sing on it with them.  It would be like going back too far. 

I don’t know Jimmy that well.  I’ve met him a few times and he has been very kind and gracious and respectful to me, and vice versa, that’s for damn sure.  I wanted to make that song my own and the register that I sing in is different than the register that Jimmy sings in. 

Toby always says, “I had to sing up in that girl register, Sambo.  You sing like a girl.”  He always teases me about that.  I put “Margaretville” down in “G” to make it work for Toby; I would normally sing it in “A”.  I am really happy with what Toby brought to it.  He sang it so country, and had that twang thing going, and it really made it special.  I don’t know if anyone else could have done that. 

It was either him, or Kenny Chesney.  I was going to do a greatest hits thing where people sang with me and Kenny was going to do “Eagles Fly.”  We threw that idea out, so Toby was left with “Margaritaville.”  Toby said, “The way that Sambo did it really pulled it way back.”  Everyone thought I would do a heavy metal version of that.  Jimmy does a heavier version.  We pulled it way back from Jimmy.  Toby said, “That is the type of song that you play right before you pass out.” 

Jeb:  I think you should fly everyone on Sammy & Friends down to Cabo and play the album live for your Birthday Bash. 

Sammy: We’re pretty much thinking about doing that.  There are a lot of guys who can’t make it, but the ones who can are going to be there.  Denny Carmassi is coming and Ronnie Dunn is coming.  Michael Anthony will be there. The Wabos will be there.  Toby is coming, I am pretty sure.  Kenny Chesney is coming, and even though he is not on the record, we will think of something. 

Jeb:  Toby hangs with you and he hangs with Ted Nugent.  I think he wants to be a rocker.  On the flip side, you’re hanging with Toby and Kenny; I think you might want to be a country boy.

Sammy: Probably about the same amount that Toby Keith wants to be a rocker.  We are cutting that piece of pie right down the middle.  I like going country because those country guys are so cool to hang out with.  I have hung with all the rock stars and I’ve done all the sex, drugs and rock and roll stuff with them.  The country guys are so much easier and fun to be around. They are down home guys.  They talk about, “Let’s go fishing.  Let’s go hunting.  Let’s go drinking.”  Things like that are so much easier than “Let’s go to strip bars and drop hundred dollar bills on the ground.” 

The country guys are more my style.  My lifestyle is much more country than it is rock and roll rock star.  I am not living a rock star life anymore.  I did all of that in Van Halen and in Montrose.  I lived it and I loved it.  I burned myself out on it.  I don’t want to go near it now...the music, yes, but the lifestyle, no. 

I am not going to hang out at the Rainbow and do coke and pick up on chicks and stay up all night smoking cigarettes and drinking booze and get divorced again. 

Jeb: Jay Buchanan, of the band Rival Sons, wrote the song “Not Going Down” for you.  Rival Sons are about the best new band, in the old style of rock, I have heard.

Sammy: That’s right.  There fucking throwbacks, alright.  In the boxing world they remind me of what Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was about when he hit the scene.  I am a boxing guy so I am all about that. 

Jay wrote that song and he knew all about me.  When I heard the song it put tears in my eyes when I tried to sing it.  It was emotional because this was me, man.  This guy wrote my fucking life story. 

We share management and Jay is from Fontana, California, my home town.  Come on, get out of here!  That is impossible.  There are only two guys from Fontana who ever got out of there and that is Jay Buchanan and Sammy Hagar. 

I was so honored that he knew about me.  I told him, “If you’re going to write me a song, then write me a Montrose-esque song.  That is what they [Rival Sons] are; they remind me of Montrose so much I can’t tell you.  I took them out on tour with me and I would watch them every night and I would watch them and just think, “They are Montrose.  They are the new Montrose.”  They are great and that song is great. To me, that song is the new “Rock Candy” and that is why I have Bill Church and Denny Carmassi on it. 

Jeb: You have never distanced yourself from your past.  From Montrose, to solo, to Van Halen to the Wabos, you played it all on this tour.  Some people don’t have that healthy of an attitude to be so open to the past despite some disappointments and bullshit you’ve gone through in some of the bands you’ve been in. 

Sammy:  You call it a healthy attitude but I think I’m sick.  I think something is wrong with me that I’m so willing to do things and I am so easily inspired and I am so gung-ho.  I don’t ever see a downside in anything.  I try to go through life making friends and not enemies.  Occasionally, I will make an enemy and I don’t know how it happens. 

Not to bring a sore subject up, but I don’t know what happened between Eddie [Van Halen] and I.  I can’t tell you.  In my opinion, he changed.  I didn’t change one bit.  I’ve never changed in my life.  I’ve always been a pretty easy going and pretty flexible guy.  I’ll even do shit that I don’t think is the right thing to do.  If everybody else wants to do it then I am like, “Let’s go. Roll up your sleeves because this one is going to get wild.” 

I like playing with other people.  That is what is so cool about the Friends record.  I got to have my super groups on every song.  I got to play with people who inspire me.  It is a great way to make a solo record.  I will say it a million times: I can’t see myself making a solo record any other way. 

When I sing with a guy like Ronnie Dunn, who is a great singer…when he sends me his verses and I listen to him sing, I go, “Holy shit, I’ve got to do that?  I’ve got to step it up.”  Playing with musicians of that caliber makes you be the best you can be. 

If you’re not having a good day then you’re not keeping up with Chad Smith, Joe Satriani and Michael Anthony.  On a bad day, Sammy Hagar does not deserve to be in that seat.  I like being challenged and I like being pushed.  That is what a Friends record does for me.  It made me really step it up and I am proud of my guitar playing, my singing, my songwriting, and my versions of cover tunes on the album…I am very proud of all of it and it was a great way to make a record. 

Jeb:  I would have never thought Sammy Hagar would remake a Depeche Mode song.

Sammy: It wasn’t in my plans [laughter].  Like I said, I am so easily inspired.  When the wind blows I get Goosebumps and think I’ve seen God.  I am like a sponge.  I am in the car, driving to the studio to do “Not Going Down” and just jam with Neal Schon, Chad and Mike.  Neal was in town for two days and he came straight over to jam with us.  Neal is worse than me.  He is always ready to go.  He sits in his house with his guitar on, waiting on the call to go play with someone.

I pull up to the studio and I run in and I say, “You guys, I’ve got a crazy idea I want you to check out.”  We downloaded a Johnny Cash version that Rick Ruben had done.  We listened to it then we listened to Depeche Mode.  We started jamming on that riff, which is a blues riff. 

Martin Gore, the guy from Depeche Mode, who wrote that song, wrote a bad ass riff that could have been on a John Lee Hooker record.  Lightening Hopkins could have written that lick.  The lyric is really sensitive and dark and fuzzy and whacked out and it is a love song from a really weird angle.  I wouldn’t write a lyric like that so I loved it.  We started playing it and I started singing it and thought we did great.  I can’t wait to hear what the guys in Depeche Mode think about it. They may not even know who I am; I don’t know.

I don’t have any boundaries when it comes to music.  Everybody around me goes, “You can’t do a Depeche Mode song.  The rockers are going to hate you for that.”  I am going, “Fuck the rockers.  Fuck Depeche Mode and fuck everybody.  I’m here to make music and I’m going to do it.”  I thought it came out great otherwise it wouldn’t be on the record. 

Jeb: “Knockdown Dragout” is another fun song that has Kid Rock on it.  The star of that song is Vic Johnson of the Wabos.  Everyone talks about Eddie, Ronnie and Joe, but Vic really is great in a different way.  Tell me what he brings to your music. 

Sammy: Vic has got the most difficult shoes to step into every morning of anybody in any band in history.  He has to stand there and play songs by Ronnie Montrose, Neal Schon, Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani.  But if you ask me, who is Sammy Hagar’s guitar player, then I will tell you it is Vic.  Vic and I struggle to keep up when we play the Van Halen stuff, or the Chickenfoot stuff.  If it wasn’t for Vic I could not play those songs.  I could not play those Van Halen songs and sing them by myself, so I need Vic.

The thing I like about Vic is that he doesn’t play like Eddie and he doesn’t play like Joe and he don’t play like Neal.  Out of any of the other guys he plays more like Ronnie Montrose, but Vic has his own style. 

I call him Vic “Butterman Right Hand” Johnson.  He has a right hand on him like The Edge and like Pete Townsend.  He can play the most notes with his right hand, ever.  At the end of a song, when you fan the song out on the guitar…he can fan that guitar in any key, in any tempo, in perfect meter and that is a right hand thing.  Of all those guys, Vic has the baddest ass right hand ever.  

With his left hand, he can shred and do all of that stuff, but he chooses to play from a blues base.  He plays the same kind of style that I do.  I love the guys playing and I love playing with him.  He is the guy who is more woven in and out of this record than you really realize. 

On “Not Going Down” that is Vic and a slide player named Dave Zirbel, who is an incredible slide player.  He is a country guy, but I cranked him up through a Marshall.  He don’t play through that sound.  He was playing through my shit and he is a bad boy.  I play the vibrato guitar on the downbeat of every chorus, but that is them.  Vic is one of the most underrated guitar players on the planet and he will never get his due because of the other guys I play with, but I love the guy and I love everything that he does. 

Jeb:  I am such a rock nerd I have read your book twice.  The common fan looks at you and thinks you have the Midas touch.  You had Montrose, the solo hits, Van Halen and then you did the tequila and sold it for $120 million dollars and they think you’ve got it made.  In your life, however, you’ve had a lot to overcome and you have had a lot of failures.  You dad was an alcoholic; your marriage had a lot of issues.  Montrose ended badly.  You had a hard time with your solo career, and then Van Halen fell apart. 

Sammy: There have been some disappointments.  I would use that word more than failures.  I call them disappointments and they are good for you. 

Everyone wants to get on the gravy train and ride, but if Montrose would have made it to the Van Halen point of success, and I stayed in that band, I think I would have ended up a miserable person.  I don’t think I would have been happy to be in one band.  At the time, when I got thrown out of that band, when Ronnie fired me, it was the worst thing that could have happened to me.  I was devastated.  I was broke and I didn’t have a record deal and I didn’t have any money.  I had a wife and a kid and I was broke and didn’t have a band.  I had to really roll up my sleeves. 

It gave me character and it made me a better singer and a better songwriter and it made me a sharper guy going through life.  I wasn’t so naïve.  I learned that you can’t just trust everybody and think everything is going to be just fine. 

Every time you have a failure, it really does give you a bigger, wider picture of life and it makes you stronger.  I am all for it.  Not failures, but rather disappointments, are sometime the best thing that can ever happen to you. 

Getting thrown out of Van Halen was...fuck.  Looking back now, if I had not been thrown out of Van Halen, I would not be where I am now, as I would still be in Van Halen, for God sakes.  I would be with not the happiest guy in the world, not in the happiest band in the world, not the most active band in the world and not the most creative band in the world, anymore. 

I’ve got a lot more things and excitement in my life right now than I have ever had and if I was still in Van Halen I would not have that.  If I was still in Van Halen I would have never had Cabo Wabo tequila.  I would not have my Beach Bar rum.  I would not have my freedom to go live in Cabo, or go live in Hawaii.  I wouldn’t have any of that, man.  I wouldn’t have this Sammy & Friends record and I wouldn’t be hanging out with all of these people.

I would be with Van Halen where you can’t do anything.  They were always like, “You can’t do that Sammy.”  I would not be nearly as successful and I would have never written my book.  My first book went straight to number one, which is a miracle.  I am a pretty happy guy right now and I don’t think that I would be this happy guy if those disappointments would have never happened. 

Jeb: From afar, you seem fearless.  You are open with me, so I will be open with you.  It is easy to let fear and circumstances hold you back and I struggle with that.  You seem fearless to me.

Sammy: From afar, I probably am and probably even in real I am.  Inside my head and my heart, I am always sitting there going, “Whew, I hope this works.” I have my little angels on my shoulder that convince me to go ahead. 

I have no bad karma coming to me.  I am an extremely positive guy to a fault.  I don’t see the downside and I get these crazy, whacky ideas and I start moving forward very quickly on them.  People around me go, ”Wait man, slow down.  Don’t you think you should consult a lawyer?”  I go, “Fuck you, this is going to work.”  Sometimes you have the disappointments that we talked about when something doesn’t work.  So, yeah, I am relatively fearless.  To me, however, I am not. 

Sammy:Jeb: Going back to when you left Van Halen and you came out with Marching to Mars, some people may be surprised how much a member of the Grateful Dead was involved with that album.

Sammy: Mickey Hart.  I was almost ready to retire from music after what happened in Van Halen.  I thought, “That’s it.  I am over it.  I am not going to play with other people anymore. I don’t feel like being in a band and I don’t want to make music.”  It was such a disappointment for Van Halen to have become what it became.  The treachery that got me out of that band was hard to deal with.  Mickey Hart said, “Oh, no man.” 

Mickey is so adventurous, musically, and he started playing me all of these whacked out grooves.  He had recorded some stuff in Saudi Arabia and China and all these places.  He recorded all of these weird, weird things.  It was so inspiring to just sit with him and jam to these tracks that he had made.  It really got me so inspired that I went in and I said, “Fuck it.  We’re leaving Hawaii and I am going back to the studio.”  My wife goes, “Oh boy…”  Everyone thought I was crazy.  Mickey Hart was a huge inspiration. 

Jeb: I find a great irony in your life.  Your father died an alcoholic.  Eddie has battled alcohol.  Montrose had demons.  You’ve been around a lot of people who have suffered with addictions that were very close to you.  Yet, you went into a business that makes and sells alcohol.  It turned out to bring you great success.  You have seen the bad side and yet it brought you a lot of happiness and money. 

Sammy: There is one form of guilt in me about my father that I am in the Spirits business.  It is like sometimes I sit there and I say, “I am catering to somebody who might have a problem” and it makes me feel kind of bad and kind of guilty.  However, if I didn’t have my Spirits out there, and you’re an alcoholic, you will find it.  I am not the only guy out there selling alcohol.  There are a million guys out there selling it and there are a million different brands. 

I just try to do a really good job and I try to make a better product than anyone else.  I don’t just put my name on a product like everyone else is doing.  I start my companies from scratch.  It is really more of a creative thing for me.  I can’t tell you how creative it is to have an idea…I will talk about the rum, as everyone knows about the tequila. 

I live in Hawaii part time, on Maui.  I am a big fan of this vodka that is made in Hawaii which is made from pineapples.  It doesn’t taste anything like pineapples, but it has the most awesome taste of vodka that you have ever tasted.  Everyone says I have to meet this guy because he is a genius and that he has this special way that he does it.  They say he even looks like me.  I go meet the guy and he looks like me and he has the same outfit on that I do, he has the goatee and he is all jacked up and having a good time.  He was my kind of guy. 

He is in the middle of a sugarcane field.  I go, “Why are you making vodka out of pineapples when you are in the middle of the sugarcane capital in the world? “  Hawaii is the cane capital in the world.  The best cane in the world grows on Maui.  They don’t grow cane like that in Jamaica, or anywhere in the Caribbean.  This is the most isolated stuff and there is no pollution.  He says, “You want me to make you some rum?”  I said, “You can do that?”  He says, “I can make anything.”  I said, “Yeah, make me some rum.”  He brings over a barrel to my house, within a couple of weeks, and I taste it and it blows my mind, as it was the best rum I have ever tasted in my life.  And it’s white rum.  I say, “You can’t drink white rum.  How did you do this?”  He starts showing me how he does this.  I say, “Can you make me a lot of this?”  He says, “Yeah.”  I am like fuck it; I am going to get some bottles made.  So, I get the bottles made.  What am I going to call it?  I go, “Let’s call it ‘Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum’, what the fuck.”  It is pretty simple, that’s the way I do things. 

When you see your rum in a store…you walk into Costco, or Safeway, and you see it then you go, “Wow, man!  It’s here!”   When you write a song, you have an idea, so you write it.  When you hear it on the radio, it puts a big ass smile on my face.  That is what the Spirits thing has done for me.  The tequila…for it to become so huge and for people to say it is the best tequila that they have ever had…it makes me feel really good.   I am pretty much a guy that gets an idea and has to see it through.  Later, I think, “Gee, was that the right thing to do?” 

I think about my dad once in a while.  The booze that killed my dad was not the booze that I’m making.  The booze that killed my dad was the cheapest wine and he became a homeless person…that’s what killed my father.  It wasn’t, you know, the alcohol itself.   It was the lifestyle and the whole thing.

Yeah, it’s tough.  If you read my book, then you’ll know what kind of guy I am.  I have feelings about a lot of stuff.  As long as I make something that is better than anybody else, and is as good as it can possibly be, then I feel good about myself.  I am making high end products.  I always want to be the best…not necessarily the biggest, but the best.   

Jeb:  Last one: Will there be another Chickenfoot album?

Sammy:  Joe and I are talking.  He is on tour, but I am sending him some lyrics and he is sending me some music and we are going to try to marry a few things, and then come January, we will have at least four, or five ideas, at least, and we can get started.  We are going to try to get together in January.